Food and Eating

Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective
– By Robin Fox

The Holy Meal

Because of its centrality in our lives, food becomes a perfect vehicle for ritual, and food rituals become central to most religions; food taboos mark off one sect or denomination from another. There has been much study of the psychology of food taboos. Perhaps the most startling theory is Freud’s concerning the ban on eating the totem animal among primitive tribes. This, he suggested, was a memorial to the primeval sin of killing and eating the father. The totem animal came to represent the father, and so could not be killed and eaten, except once a year when it was killed and eaten ceremoniously.

Modern anthropology tends to stress the usefulness of food as a marker of social boundaries. As the late Meyer Fortes said, it is not so much that food is "good to eat" as that it is "good to forbid." Catholics, for example, could find a bond between each other and a mark of difference from Protestants by substituting fish for meat on Fridays. It was probably a mistake for the Catholic Church to end the ban on meat; it had helped make Catholics feel special, and many continue to observe it voluntarily.

Freud’s theory of the "sacred meal" may appear somewhat bizarre, but his concern with it was not misplaced. The sacred meal is of crucial importance in many religions, including the "advanced" ones. We are all familiar with Seder and Holy Communion. The latter derives from an actual meal — the Last Supper — but has much older roots. It goes back to the idea of sharing a meal with God, which some scholars see as the root idea of sacrifice. This develops further into the idea of eating the god to gain his strength and virtue. The Aztecs made huge loaves in the shape of the gods, and these were thrown down the temple steps to be devoured by the multitude. Human sacrifice and cannibalism come to linked again in the idea of the sacred meal, with the supreme food being used — human flesh.

There are various versions of the eating of the ancestors. South American Indians grind up the ashes and bones of dead parents and mix them in a soup which all their relatives share. This is another version of incorporating the ancestor or god into one’s own body. Our funeral feasts are a pale reflection of some of these more extreme types of sacred meal. But the idea of a memorial to the dead through eating is still there, and at Irish wakes the dead body often joins in the merriment. While such feasts, like wedding feasts, serve a practical purpose in feeding the guests, they also serve the ritual purpose of uniting the celebrants in the common act of eating, with all its rich, symbolic associations.

Grace before meat is a declining civility — Charles Lamb was already deploring its decline in the early nineteenth century. But religious ideas still cling to the act of eating — or of denying food. Frugality, in some religions and secular derivatives of them, is holiness. The Calvinist ascetic version of life equates "plain food" and the "good life." Elements of this are still there in health food faddism. The antihedonism ethic aims at food and drink as much as sex. Gluttony, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins. "Carnival" in the Latin tradition is a wonderful example of a gluttonous exception to food asceticism. The fasting of Lent is violently contrasted to the excesses of Carnival. Once again, food (and drink) is used (either in its use or its denial) to mark the passage into or out of a ritual state. The Latins tend to be more tolerant of bodily demands, and consistent food puritanism seems to be a northern and Protestant proclivity. But, as G. K. Chesterton so aptly put it:

      Water is on the Bishop’s board,
            and the higher thinker’s shrine;
      But I don’t care where the water goes
            if it doesn’t get into the wine.

See also his marvellous Song Against Grocers.

There is, however, a counterbalancing epicurean tradition (of whom Chesterton was the bard) which does not see high living as incompatible with the good life, especially where the good life consists of high thinking. One of the oddities of English life is the tradition of the Inns of Court (which are so called because they started out as real inns where lawyers stayed while on the circuit) whereby eating a certain number of dinners "in hall" is a requirement for becoming a barrister. Similar communal dining requirements apply (in college) to those who would qualify for a master’s degree at Oxford and Cambridge. High table in an Oxbridge college is a paradigm for the correlation of high living and high thinking. Commentators have noted the massive discrepancy between the cost of the Dons’ meals and those of the undergraduates. Here the difference is used as an inducement or initiation procedure. The novitiates are deprived, but are reminded of the alimentary rewards of superior performance. But whether we are conspicuously eating well, or conspicuously depriving ourselves and others, we mark ourselves off — either as having more than anyone else, or less; and either is made a virtue. By their food shall ye know them.

The use of food as ritual is often not so obvious, but when we think of our linking of food with occasions and festivals, and often limiting it to these, it becomes clearer. Thus, elaborate fruit puddings and cakes are made and eaten by the English only at Christmas, and goose is rarely eaten at any other time; pancakes are made only on Shrove Tuesday and thrown about with great ceremony; Americans used only to eat turkey at Thanksgiving, and even now it is rare to cook the whole bird except at this family ceremonial; eggnog seems to be drunk only at Christmas in the States. Cooking the whole animal seems to be reserved for ceremonial and festive occasions. Suckling pig is only roasted whole in China for weddings and the like; whole oxen or pigs in Europe are only spit roasted at festivals. The animals could be cut up and cooked more conveniently, but there seems to be a conscious archaism involved in the spit roasting that underlines the special nature of the event. Numerous cakes, puddings, pies, and pastries are reserved throughout Europe for special occasions (gingerbread men and parkin pigs on Guy Fawkes’ Day in England, and pumpkins at Halloween in the United States, for example). In all these cases, the special food serves to mark the special occasion and bring home to us its significance.